How To Safely Handle A Turkey

A caregiver checks the feathers along the back of a large breed white turkey hen.

If you’re caring for turkeys, it’s very important that you know how to safely handle and hold them. Some turkeys are more receptive to being held than others depending on their size and how they’ve been socialized. Each resident in your care might have their own special handling requirements depending on their breed and health needs. Regular handling of a turkey will help familiarize them with the experience and can help make stressful events like health concerns, separations, and relocations a little less nerve-wracking, but be very mindful of the unique challenges that turkeys face!

Ask An Expert

If at all possible, have a veterinarian or care expert give you hands-on training for safe turkey handling! Failing to use appropriate technique can gravely injure turkeys.

The Approach

First off, if you’ve never handled a turkey, especially an adult turkey, do not attempt to pick them up alone! Have an experienced caregiver demonstrate the technique for you. Like any bird, when approaching the turkey, it’s essential that you not chase them. Chasing is going to stress them out and will likely make them skittish or confrontational around you. In order to corral them, guide them into a corner where you can safely secure them. Turkeys are very sensitive to quick motion and loud noises, so be extra gentle! Some more nervous turkeys may still actively avoid your grip, so they might require a bit more coaxing.

Safety First!

If you’re gathering a turkey for a health checkup, especially if they show signs of illness, remember to wear gloves and protective clothing in order to lower the chances of contracting or spreading any external parasites. Do not wear loose jewelry around turkeys when picking them up as they have been known to snatch shiny objects off of people.

The Pickup

When picking a turkey up, the technique you choose depends on their breed and health. For smaller non-large breed turkeys without many health challenges, you can stand beside them and then hug the bird to your upper body, making sure to safely cover their wings. This will prevent them from injuring themselves or jumping away from you. It’s not safe to hold a turkey’s body under their wings for these reasons.

Unsafe Holding

NEVER pick up a turkey by their wings, feathers, legs, feet, or neck. This is an unacceptable practice that regularly harms turkeys. Do not allow anyone else to pick them up by their wings either! Some veterinarians have been known to do this as it is a standard practice in animal agriculture environments.

For large breed turkeys and those who have compromised health, many are too large, too fragile, or have too much strain on their respiratory system to ever safely lift them off the ground. Instead, you should sit cross-legged near the turkey and then hug them safely into your lap, securing their wings. You must be extraordinarily cautious when it comes to handling and rotating these birds, as it could cause serious bodily harm to them. Some birds can never be rotated onto their side.

Prolapsed Vent

When handling a large breed turkey, especially a hen, be sure to watch for signs of a prolapsed vent (tissue protruding from the vent). Gently set the bird down at the first sign of prolapse, as further stress can cause the turkey to strain and prolapse more tissue- in severe cases to the point of disemboweling themselves. If the prolapse is small and resolves immediately after the turkey is set down, most likely the issue was a result of stress from handling.  However, if the prolapse is more than just a small amount of tissue and/ or does not resolve quickly, it should be treated as a serious health issue.

It’s okay if their legs are free as long as you have their torso and wings safely cradled, but gently supporting their feet with a free hand is good if they’re nervous. If one of their wings gets free of your grip, gently lower them to the ground and try lifting them again safely. If the turkey is struggling or very stressed out, lower them to the ground and let them rest for some time before lifting them again- this is very important as turkeys can die of stress-related heart attacks quite easily. Due to their overbred size, turkeys have much more fragile feet and legs than chickens, so be extra mindful of them when handling and setting them down! If they are high up off the ground, they absolutely cannot be allowed to jump away from you.

Tussling Toms

Adult male turkeys in mating season (typically early spring, sometimes through summer) are going to be more confrontational, so you may have to be a bit more careful in handling them in this time!

Once safely in your grip, you can gently pet them (never stroking against their feather grain!) and talk to them softly in order to calm them down and make them more comfortable with human handling. There’s an optimal balance to be struck between holding them firmly, but not causing them injury. You always want the bird to be calm, not gasping or struggling under pressure, and feeling confident that they aren’t going to fall. If a turkey is simply too stressed out to be held and rapidly breathing, you must set them down and let them calm down.

Carrying A Turkey

If you need to carry a turkey, keep one hand securely under their keel. You can tuck their head slightly between your arm and your body. Be very mindful of their whole body and that nothing is slipping out of your grip! If it’s straining for you or the bird to carry them safely, err on the side of caution and put them down for a bit. You should not carry large breed turkeys unless you absolutely need to as it can be a serious strain on their bodies.  You may find that the easiest and safest way to move large breed turkeys is to put them in a large carrier and carry that rather than the turkey themselves.  You will most likely need two people to safely move the carrier being sure to support the bottom to prevent any chance of the carrier falling apart and the turkey falling out.

Setting Down A Turkey

When you set down a turkey, safely and carefully let their feet back onto the ground while continuing to keep their wings secure until you’re confident that they will gently leave you. Never let a turkey jump down! Depending on their dietary requirements, you could give them a little extra treat after handling so they have a positive memory to associate the experience with.

What Does 'Unacceptable' Mean?

At The Open Sanctuary Project, unacceptable means that we cannot condone (or condone through omission) a certain practice, standard, or policy. See a more detailed explanation here.

SOURCES:

Turkey Care | Farm Sanctuary

Turkey Handling | New School Animals (Non-Compassionate Source)

Non-Compassionate Source?

If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

Updated on August 6, 2020

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